Anxiety, Depression, and Dread: The Unseen Side of the Year in Israel

By: Rivka Inger  |  March 26, 2024

By Rivka Inger, Senior Features Editor 

For a long time, I thought that I was the only one whose experience in Israel was an unhappy one. Granted, I knew that I was an exceptional case, having left seminary just four months into the year due to poor mental health and starting Stern abruptly with practically no friends to speak of. Until one day, I was speaking to a friend about her own seminary experience, lamenting how my room was four beds crammed into an attic, while hers was a beautifully open one with personal space as well as a balcony, albeit a tiny one. 

This conversation took a turn for the bizarre when I asked innocently, “What did you guys use that balcony for anyways, since it was so small?” Her answer was short and quick. “Cry.” I was taken aback. Not quite the answer I was expecting. “We all pretended that we couldn’t hear each other doing it,” she continued, “but we all knew that it was happening.”

This interaction made me start thinking about the year in Israel experience overall, and I became quite curious on the topic of mental health during this pivotal time. I began to ask my friends how they handled difficult emotions while at seminary or yeshiva, and the answers varied dramatically. I have friends who, thankfully, flew in and out of Israel without much emotional turmoil to speak of, having enjoyed their year and thrived there. 

Unfortunately, not everybody I spoke to had quite the same experience. One friend told me that after seminary, she can never live in a dorm again, her social anxiety becoming so exacerbated that she never wants to relive it. Another spoke of handling her eating disorder without the help of the seminary or her parents, seeing a specialist out of her own pocket. Turning to yeshivas, a friend confessed to his battle with grief after the death of Donny Morris and falling amid the cracks of a yeshiva which didn’t check in on its students. Additionally, this is pushing aside those who are thrown into the depths of their PTSD whenever they hear a siren after having experienced the exchange of rockets in 2021 and 2023. 

My natural question after this– though some had already given the answer– was whether or not their gap year program gave them the support that they needed during such a tumultuous time of their lives. Speaking from personal experience, my seminary did have a psychologist, a social worker and a nurse practitioner to handle emotional and medical conundrums. While speaking to the nurse practitioner at the beginning of the year to order an Israeli prescription of my antidepressants, she asked me how long I had been taking them, to which I replied about three months. She nodded, scribbled everything down on a post-it-note, and seemingly unsure of what to say, opted for a quiet “feel better…” 

I wasn’t too encouraged. 

In a small survey of students, most indicated that their program did have mental health professionals on staff, and those who indicated as such felt that they were qualified and helpful, even if these professionals did not always make a point of meeting with students on an individual basis. Unfortunately, several others confessed that their program didn’t have any mental health resources to speak of, meaning that the only way to obtain mental health support was to individually seek out English-speaking professionals in the area, a daunting task even for somebody mentally healthy. 

Otherwise, there’s always the option of discussing these matters with an aim or av bayit, a madrich or madricha, or a religious mentor. These staff members can lend a listening ear or personal advice, but ultimately are not often trained in psychotherapy in a way which provides meaningful help. There is also a heavy stigma which comes with seeking assistance in a year where you’re first meant to be exposed to being ‘on your own’. Sadly, this spirals into students being lost in the cracks and having to face their mental turmoil without the proper help, even at such institutions which do have the correct resources.

So, is there anything to be done on this issue? Absolutely. For one, there is no excuse for why any yeshiva, seminary, or similar institution should not have a team of qualified mental health professionals to help Jewish young adults during one of the most formative years of their lives. This is especially true considering how many students have significant trouble navigating Israel in general; it won’t be very easy to find the right psychotherapist in a country where you haven’t yet learned how to take the bus. Though I received direction from my seminary on how to make an appointment with an English-speaking psychiatrist, I know that many of my peers weren’t nearly as lucky, and spent their entire year suffering in silence. 

This is especially true of those seminaries and yeshivas which can garner over a hundred students, where it happens far too often that some who were struggling did not receive the care that they needed merely because they fell through the cracks. There were also those who fell into the ever present trap of “their grades are fine, so they must be doing okay.” Regardless of how they appear to be doing, every single student at any given program should be given clear, compassionate, and comprehensive resources to help them thrive.

Sitting here, I feel that I write this article from a unique perspective. After all, I’m not one of the ones who ‘made it’, having left seminary after exhausting the available mental health options. That’s why I feel that making these reforms are so important. No one should ever feel like there’s nowhere to turn, and that the only way to be healthy is to terminate an experience that they have likely been looking forward to for years. Instead, let’s work to normalize asking for help during the year in Israel, because there’s no shame in struggling. 

Remember: it’s okay not to be okay.